The Garifuna drum in Belize is an important part of the Garinagu musical heritage. Here’s how to make one.

[Editor’s Note: Norbert Figueroa is the third writer-in-residence to participate in the Road Warrior program, a partnership between MatadorU and the Belize Tourism Board.]

THE GARIFUNA PEOPLE, or Garinagu, are descendants of the Arawaks and Caribs from the Caribbean and West Africans from the island of St. Vincent, and today live mainly along the Caribbean coast in Central American countries like Belize. The drum is the dominant instrument in Garifuna music, and the da-da…boom! sound is used not only to establish the beat of the song, but also to lead the singers. The drumming also has a direct relationship with the dancers, where dancer challenges drummer to follow his steps, and drummer challenges dancer to follow his beat.

While in Dangriga, the culture capital of Belize, I had the pleasure of meeting with traditional drum maker Austin Rodriguez, owner of Austin Rodriguez Drum Shop. He’s been making drums for over 35 years, and he and his daughters took the time to show me how it’s done.


How to make a Garifuna drum

There are two main types of drum, primero and segundo. Both are made the same way, the only difference being the diameter. Primero drums have a smaller diameter to provide high pitch sounds, while segundo drums have a bigger diameter for lower pitch sounds.


How to make a Garifuna drum

Garifuna drums are made of mahogany, cedar, or mayflower wood. The outline of the drum is drawn on an appropriate log, about 1 inch from the edge. The top of the drum should have a wider diameter than the bottom, which can be achieved by cutting the outer layers with a machete and then sanding. This conical shape affects the sound of the finished piece.


How to make a Garifuna drum

Traditional drum makers like Austin used to use burning cohune oil to hollow the log for the drum. But this only allowed them to produce one drum per log. Today, many drum makers use chainsaws to speed up the process and to produce more than one drum per log. (See next photo.)


How to make a Garifuna drum

The log is cut with a chainsaw, following the line previously traced. Here Norielle Rodriguez, one of Austin's daughters, is making a primero drum.


How to make a Garifuna drum

The interior plug is extracted (and further cut into more drums if it is the correct size - this one wasn't) and the inner surface of the drum is partially smoothed with the chainsaw, and in some cases sanded as well.


How to make a Garifuna drum

Holes are drilled in the top and bottom of the drum. These are used to weave the ropes that tighten the skin that will be placed on the drum top.


How to make a Garifuna drum

The skin for the drumhead comes from a peccary pig, deer, sheep, or goat. Sometimes cow skin is used for the bigger segundo drums. The type of skin doesn't affect the sound. The skin is stretched out under the sun to cure. Once it is dry and stiff, it is cut so it's a few inches larger than the diameter of the drum.


How to make a Garifuna drum

The hair is removed from the skin with a knife, after which the skin is softened with water. It is then placed on the rim of the drum and stretched to cover the drum top.


How to make a Garifuna drum

Two pieces of vine are used to attach the skin to the drum. (The bark is removed so they last longer.) The skin is wrapped with one vine on the inside and the other on the outside.


How to make a Garifuna drum

Finally, ropes are weaved between the vines and the skin, with a wooden stick added to tighten the skin and for fine-tuning the sound. Garifuna drums also have a special addition on top. To add extra vibration to the sound, segundo drums have two strings of fishing line tied with small knots. With each beat of the drum, these will vibrate and bounce on the skin and create a sort of "cracked" sound. The primero drums use guitars strings instead, with no knots.


How to make a Garifuna drum

In a traditional performance, the drums are used alongside gourd shakers called sisera, turtle shells, and knee rattles. Here are Caluto Zuniga, Raymond McDonald, and Damiana Gutierrez, of Warasa Drum School, performing traditional Paranda music.